Dawn of the Day – Valhalla Mountain Touring

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | December 20, 2012      

As I lie in bed this morning, I imagine Selkirk powder had built up to our second story window overnight. It almost happened. I am excited for an epic day of human powered pow on the massive pile of new fluff that’s just sitting out there like the best meal you’ve ever anticipated. I pull the covers tighter, but the designated breakfast chef is banging pots and pans downstairs and I know it is time. As a new fire crackles in the wood stove, I don my sophisticated yoga attire and head down to catch room on a mat before the crowds arise. After a bit of stretching in front of the wood heat, I grab a cup of joe and switch to ibu-pilates, a new form that’s quite popular at ski touring huts. Such is the dawn of the day at a Selkirk powder lodge.

Ski touring out of Valhalla's Ruby Creek Lodge, Michael Kennedy photo

Ski touring out of Valhalla's Ruby Creek Lodge, Michael Kennedy photo, click images to enlarge.

So many things to do in a life as a ski mountaineer. I’ve done my share. But until now I’d never enjoyed the Canadian Selkirk powder harvest nor stayed in one of the famous lodges that serve as a grain elevator system for the vast piles of stellar dendrites that accumulate here every winter. A few impressions.

There are a lot of these operations. Backcountry Lodges of BC association has 27 members. The business as a whole comprises an astonishing number of human powered user days. Indeed, you would think the ski and guiding industry in the lower 48 would have taken more notice over past decades on how the backcountry lodge experience enhances the backcountry skiing experience. But a weird set of circumstances has enabled the BC lodges, while making full service U.S. backcountry skiing lodges somewhat rare even in areas where the snowpack could support them. They do exist in the U.S. (commenters feel free to share your favorite), but nothing like the variety they have up here (and a far, far cry from the literally thousands of full service huts in western Europe.

Louie Dawson starts down 'Big Momma" at Valhalla Mountain Touring. Michael Kennedy photo

Louie Dawson starts down 'Big Momma" at Valhalla Mountain Touring. Michael Kennedy photo

No reason to get into the politics of huts here, except to say that the it appears the public and the government in BC are much more supportive of these operations than they are in the States. For example, the user fee Valhalla Lodge pays the government is an astoundingly low $1 a day. Further, vast tracts of land are available for “tenures,” without restrictions on lodge type uses (as opposed to legal Wilderness in the States, where anything short of hiking or riding horses is prohibited on pain of Sierra Club exorcism.)

So, my impressions from Valhalla Mountain Touring. We’re on what they call a “friends” trip, meaning we’re unguided and bring our own food. We still ski with owners Jasmin Caton and Evan Stevens. They’re just not officially “guiding” us. Most of their trips are catered, meaning they’re guided and a cook prepares all the food.

A typical day for us goes something like this: Our group of 14 people is divided into breakfast and dinner crews who do one morning and night each. The cook gets up and starts banging pans at 6:00 am, and we’re eating breakfast sometime between then and 7:00. During breakfast Evan gives us a weather and avalanche briefing. The lodges all talk to each other about conditions, so in Evan’s short take we’re getting a world of impressions from all over the region.

14 people, 25 square miles, half a meter of fluff on top of rock solid base. Plan it.

14 people, 25 square miles, half a meter of fluff on top of rock solid base. Plan it.

Plenty of route maps and photos are available and the owners are free with advice. Track up their snow? Sure, it’s all new 24 hours later.

Owner Jasmine and guest Dave whip up dinner.

Owner Jasmin and guest Dave whip up dinner in the lodge kitchen. We liked cooking on the commercial gas range.

After breakfast the mad scramble of the get-ready ensues. The crowd breaks into informal groups, and the drill basically involves gaining human powered vertical then skiing back down. During avalanche stable periods such as what we’re in now, most strategy involves figuring out where the best snow lies and what’s appropriate in terms of weather exposure. Valhalla’s tenure includes a bit of semi-alpine terrain that’s fun in the sun, but windy and cold during storms. Below that, vast timbered areas are steep enough and just sparsely treed enough to ski, and ski well.

It gets dark early this time of year, so everyone rolls in around two or three in the afternoon. Typical vertical gain for a day’s skiing is from 4,000 to 6,000 vertical feet, with much more possible for those with the cardio, due to low altitude and terrain that lends itself to efficient skin tracks.

As we return, the sauna gets fired up, people stretch and hydrate. A long dinner and social hour leads to early bedtime if everyone is ski motivated (though parties have been known to happen).

It’s really a quite simple life. A few tips if you go:

– Have your gear extra dialed. Temperatures can be cold, and you may be using your gear more than normal. Anything you’ve not figured out back home may be prone to breakage or malfunction. Not being immune to such things, I fiddled with duct tape yesterday while everyone else was out skiing. Unfun.

– Boots need to fit blister free, obviously.

– A conscientious lodge keeper will remind each group to practice good hygiene so germs don’t run free through the crowd. To help, bring your own stash of hand sanitizer.

– In normal Selkirk winter pow conditions, ski width rules. While a good skier can ride anything in Kootenay cold smoke, having a wide platform makes skiing so much easier — so you’ll have more fun on the down and more energy for the up. For example, I brought two skis: 178 cm Manaslu weighs 50.5 ounces each and is 95 cm underfoot; DPS Wailers I’ve got are 99 underfoot and weigh 52.3 ounces each. I’ve been on each ski out the door here. The Manaslu is slightly more nimble on the uphill. On the other hand, I can totally feel those extra few millimeters of platform that the Wailers give me so they’ve been the ski I’m tending to grab in the morning. Either of those skis would be considered too narrow by most folks around here it seems, but I like the way they climb.

– If you tour in storms (hope that you do), you’ll want a full shell ensemble made of the latest ultra-breathable yet waterproof fabrics. For example, I’m using a Westcomb Shift FT Hoody jacket made of Polartec Neoshell. Aamazing stuff. It could be said that while ski width and shape may have revolutionized backcountry powder touring, recent advances in clothing technology have not been far behind in influence.

I know a lot of you readers have way more experience than I do with Canadian lodge backcountry skiing. Any tips you’ve got are appreciated. Comments on! And another big plug for Vallhalla’s Selkirk powder stash. They are fully booked for the season, except for 5 spots during their special yoga ski week for women only, although we heard there may be room for a sauna boy. Guys, if you want to get your WildSnow Girl the ultimate gift, book her in. Gals, bust a last minute move and come to Vahalla to align your chakras. Start of your best year ever. More info here and here.


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14 Responses to “Dawn of the Day – Valhalla Mountain Touring”

  1. Daniel Dunn December 20th, 2012 10:03 am

    Great report Lou, I want to go, really, REALLY, badly! Thanks

  2. Fernando Pereira December 20th, 2012 10:31 am

    Great report, stoking me for my early February return to another great lodge, Sol Mountain in the Monashees. A couple of comments. I’ve stayed at Sol and also at Ice Creek on the West side of the Valhallas. Both are on Crown land tenures (similar to US Forest Service leases) but close to provincial parks (Sol: Monashee Provincial Park; Ice Creek: Valhalla Provincial Park). The parks are similar to wilderness in that there are no roads, and motorized access is not allowed. That makes for great touring! In contrast, Tioga Pass Resort, which is on private land right by CA 120 East of Yosemite but surrounded by National Forest and National Park land, had to give up its winter opening after a few years because the constraints and constant rule changes of the Forest Service made winter opening a money-losing proposition. I stayed there a few times for fantastic access to the Tioga Pass area, and I’m sad that is no longer possible except with a major winter camping expedition. As for lodge hygiene: norovirus is the worst enemy, as it persists on all surfaces for weeks and is easily spread by sick people. Thorough bathroom and kitchen washing and disinfecting precautions are a must, industrial disinfectant your friend.

  3. Luke Bishop December 20th, 2012 11:18 am

    I guess I never realized the Manaslu was so wide underfoot. 95cm….that’s a lot of ski right there!

    Sounds like an incredible trip so far. Looking forward to the first hut trip of the year myself!


  4. David B December 20th, 2012 4:37 pm

    Sounds like a great trip Lou.

    I used to spend quite a bit of time in that neck of the woods and love the place. I’ve got to get back there one day.

    Great to see you on the Wailers. What leangth are you riding?

  5. Jw December 20th, 2012 8:53 pm

    Once you go for joint replacements you can not bad mouth bolt on horsepower. Give Julie the phat ones. Best from John, Jocelyn & Luna

  6. Mark December 21st, 2012 7:08 pm

    I helped Ben Zavora build the Woody Creek cabin this summer just south of Cooke City, Montana. It’s a 20X24 cabin built almost entirely of beetle killed trees from the property with a chain saw mill. It is a 2 mile walk and all supplies were carried to the site under human power. http://www.beartoothpowder.com
    For more rad terrain near the Beartooth Crest, Ben just set up a yurt on FS land. We did the first yurt and cabin stay this weekend. It was a blast and the powder was deep too. Probably better than the Selkirk powder…jk.
    FYI – Cooke City has 7ft of snow on the ground already.

  7. Kurt Withers December 21st, 2012 8:40 pm

    Hut Trips in British Columbia are the way to go! Nothing beats getting a head start above the tree line! The valley bushwacks are legendary. Speaking of ski width. It is rare now to see descent oriented people touring in British Columbia on anything less than 100mm. In 5 years I have gone from 90mm to 112mm on my go to ski. The often variable nature of our snow makes a wider ski better in all conditions from wet coastal pow to blower interior cold smoke.

  8. Tim Sander December 22nd, 2012 7:58 am

    As a neighbour from down below, Im really glad you guys are having a blast! We run a tiny bed and breakfast at the bottom of Grizzly Meadows, in upper Hills. Just loving the snow. One day I’ll come and play up high at VMT lodge…. Play safe. Tim

  9. eric olsen December 22nd, 2012 6:10 pm

    I was lucky, even blessed, to go skiing twice at VMT in the early 80s. Cost was about 100 bucks for the catered week plus beer and the long drive from Seattle. Tiny old shack of a cabin, outhouse, sleeping bags, wool pants, preGoretex, wood heat and Colemans, no shower or sauna. My setup was Iser bindings on the widest skis anyone knew, Kneissls that were 90mm wide (at the SHOVEL!) The second year, some Bozeman friends did the week on threepins on those yellow Epokes without edges, no problemo. Like you said, if you can do it, you can do it.
    I never had so much fun. Snow like your photos. Thoroughly striped Cariboo and upper Shannon Basin too. The forest just uphill from the hut was open clear-cut then. Great in the moonlight.
    I’ve also been to VMT more recently. The new hut, powered by minihydro, is the nicest of all the BC huts I’ve visited (so far). Jasmine’s dad stayed nearby and helped, but we were self-guided and -catered. Nobody disappeared or died. The light Manaslus take me up, I can make it back down.
    Now that I am 65, I prefer the comforts, but the old days were great.

  10. Lou Dawson December 22nd, 2012 6:33 pm

    Thanks for sharing Eric!

  11. Craig December 23rd, 2012 9:47 am

    Funny you mention we like our fat skis up here. After 50 cm day at whitewater this week some guys and I were talking that 150 underfoot would not be out of the question in bottomless powder. This from a bunch of guys with 130 mm underfoot.

  12. John Traeger December 23rd, 2012 6:06 pm

    Having been to many of the BC huts over the last decade or so, the closest thing I have seen in the US is the Barron Yurt out of Mazama WA. Situated on the edge of the Pasayten wilderness on the NE side of the Cascades they get excellent coastal snow depth with continental temps (not unlike the Selkirks). They have a good selection of both treed and alpine terrain giving good weather options.

    And yes, I too am a reformed snow camper. Once you go hut, you don’t go back…

  13. Mike Kelly January 1st, 2013 6:21 pm

    Great to see you and Lisa at the 10th Christmas party.
    Looks like you had as much fun as we did in Revy though we used less energy
    for the up.

  14. Pierson Bourquin March 12th, 2013 12:57 am

    Is any of the terrain at Valhalla Mountain Touring glaciated?
    A friend is offering a last minute opening which I’m considering and I’d like to get some glacier travel experience.
    Insights appreciated.

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